National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

Selling celebrity in the 1860s with ‘Somebody’s Luggage’

From the ‘A’ list to the ‘Z’ list today’s celebrities sell their stories to the gossip magazines and their brand and image to the public – a Brad Pitt poster, a One Direction onesie, or a Kylie duvet cover can all be yours for a price.

In the 1860s things weren’t so different for ‘General’ Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren. Part of showman PT Barnum’s troupe of performers, these were the most famous little people in the world. Their picture was a commodity many people were willing to pay for.

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Portrait of Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Charles Sherwood Stratton was originally hired by Barnum in 1842 due to his small stature. He was given the stage name of ‘General’ Tom Thumb, and quickly became the star attraction at Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.

On 10 February 1863 Stratton married his fellow performer Lavinia Warren in an extravagant ceremony at Grace Church, an Episcopal cathedral New York City. The ‘Fairy Wedding’ was the event of the season and made front page news in the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly.

Portraits of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Portraits of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

PT Barnum relentlessly promoted the wedding. As well as a genuine marriage it was an opportunity to make money from selling tickets and souvenirs.

Within The Royal Photographic Society Collection in our care is a brilliant example of how PT Barnum made money from the fascination that the public had for General Tom Thumb, Lavinia Warren, and the other little people he employed.

Locket with 12 portraits of the performers Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Locket with 12 portraits of the performers Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

This tiny gilt locket, with the shape and detail of a suitcase, is inscribed with the title ‘Somebody’s Luggage’. It is only 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) high. A mass produced commemorative souvenir, it contains a pull out concertina of 12 tiny albumen prints.

These show Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren’s wedding along with photographs of their attendants – bridesmaid Minnie Warren, and best man George Washington Morrison Nutt (Commodore Nutt).

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The photos show the four performers in a variety of poses and costumes, including Tom Thumb as Napoleon.

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Often they are posed with a full sized chair to emphasise their small stature.

Portrait of Tom Thumb  from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portrait of Tom Thumb from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

One photograph shows Lavinia with a baby; this was also a publicity stunt concocted by Barnum. The Thumbs remained childless, but the baby was incorporated into the Thumb story after their honeymoon and ultimately exchanged for a new, smaller infant when it grew larger than its ‘parents’.

Portrait of Lavinia Warren  from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portrait of Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The date of ‘Somebody’s Luggage’ is uncertain. It is certainly after the wedding in 1863, but probably produced before 1866 when General and Mrs Tom Thumb, Minnie Warren, and Commodore Nutt travelled to England to perform.

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portrait of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portraits of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portraits of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portrait of Tom Thumb from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portrait of Tom Thumb from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portraits of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Portraits of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren from a gilt locket containing 12 albumen prints, c. 1864, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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About Rebecca Smith

I'm the collections assistant - I answer enquiries, dig about in the archives, and update information about our collections. In my spare time I like looking at stuff - paintings, old industrial buildings, photographs, hills and waterfalls.

2 comments on “Selling celebrity in the 1860s with ‘Somebody’s Luggage’

  1. laura lennox
    January 28, 2014

    Omg, love this! My nee fav!

  2. Eric D. Lehman
    February 8, 2014

    Great post. I’m sure you’ll love my new book about Tom Thumb, America’s first celebrity. http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Tom-Thumb-Celebrity-Connecticut/dp/0819573310

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